Why did we stop playing?

This article is inspired by a podcast with Professor Luis Perez-Breva where he talks about ‘play’. Shout out to my friend Will Sommers for sending it to me.

When we were young, we used to play. Remember?

We used to play with legos and build cars. We used to play with mud and build bridges. We even used to play with food and fly it into our mouths. We didn’t care if we built a crappy lego car or missed entry with a pasta sauce smudged cheek. It was fun, and so we did it. And little by little, we got smarter and built better.

But over time, something happened: we stopped playing. It was around adolescence for me. Play was still fun so that part didn’t change. I don’t know why we stopped. It’s something I’m still struggling to understand. I have a couple guesses, though.

  • We started to follow a script. Up until now, life was unstructured and mostly free. Our parents were always supportive of us and wanted the best. But they started watching us, and measuring. And they’d say things like “ballet isn’t for you” or “don’t waste your time on distractions things like basketball”. And without realizing it, we entered a current. Laid out by our parents and the “system”, the script laid expectations on us. School, college, and the rest of it. And so we started swimming with the current.

  • We got scared. We became fearful of failing because it’d mean sticking out. And who wants to be the kid who sticks out, swimming upstream? That’s a recipe for not having any friends and being uncool. We didn’t have egos yet and we didn’t know how to be stubborn. So we carried forward and did what the script told us to do.

  • Our parents’ reputations began to be connected to ours. Their standing in their circle would begin to be measured by how well we followed the script. For them, play was too risky an activity and one with no clear connection to the script. So they deemphasized play or eliminated it altogether, partially to protect themselves.

  • We got impatient. We saw the years ahead of us and the obligations (read: money) needed to support ourselves. We knew if we stuck to playing, we’d make more money than imaginable. But we also knew it’d take time. So we opted for the safer route: the shorter route.

Every single one of us on Earth has a talent. It is a unique talent and it makes us special. It gives us the ability to contribute to something bigger, whether it’s to a startup or to a village.

Some people get lucky and find that talent early in life. They get taken off the script by forward thinking parents who see their child’s superpower. I’m thinking of child prodigy musicians and athletes. Others get lucky later in life when they find their special skill overlaps with something in the script. They get the most social proof because the system is structured to reward them the most. I’m thinking of Rhodes’ scholars and Nobel Prize winners.

But what happens to everyone else? People who played early in life and showed a special talent but never got to use it? People who kept playing—even after they were told not to—and fell out of favor?

How do we discover these latent geniuses? How do we stop shoehorning brilliant people into not so brilliant jobs?

How do we get back to playing?

Written on February 1, 2020